Who can’t recall when we as children would wake up to find our eyes crusted shut? You may remember your eyes being gloppy and painful to the touch, with bright light adding a harsh burning sensation. So when your child comes home from a sleep over or pool party with those memorable symptoms, you may wonder: is it pink eye or just allergies? Or could it be one caused by the other?
Pink eye – also known as conjunctivitis – occurs when the thin lining that protects the whites of the eyes (the conjunctiva) and the inside of the eyelids become infected or irritated, turning the whites pink or red. Some signs you may have pink eye include a feeling that something is stuck in your eye, causing you to try to rub it out. As a natural cleaning mechanism, your eye will produce more tears to flush the infection which present with mucus or a pus-like discharge. When we sleep, that goop likely will forge your eyes shut with your eyelashes to stick together. Remember that burning sensation? That occurs from swelling and irritation in the eye and eyelid.
The most frequent causes of conjunctivitis are bacteria and viruses. Other common causes are irritants such as grains of sand or a loose eyelash causing a reaction. Rarely, fungi, amoebas or parasites, or some more serious diseases can cause conjunctivitis.
Viruses can cause pink eye, the primary culprit being adenovirus, a type of virus that infects the lining tissues in different parts of the body – it can also cause a sore throat, bronchitis or diarrhea. Conjunctivitis due to a virus is usually highly contagious.
You likely have heard of staph and strep infections. Staphylococcus and Streptococcus can cause pink eye, as well as skin and soft tissue infections, strep throat and ear infections. Bacterial conjunctivitis is most common in young children and it is also very contagious.
An allergy is the overreaction of the body’s disease-fighting immune system to the world around us. The most frequent type of eye allergy is called seasonal allergic conjunctivitis (SAC). Allergens such as pollen from plants, trees and grasses are common causes of allergic conjunctivitis. Household allergens such as dust mites, mold and pet dander also cause reddening of the eyes.
Other irritants that may affect your child include tobacco smoke, motor vehicle fumes, and the air quality in the area you live in. Symptoms of allergic reactions in the eyes include red, watery itchy eyes and may be accompanied by itchy skin, sneezing, wheezing and/or hives.
Infection or allergy?
Although it can be difficult to distinguish conjunctivitis from allergies, there are some signs you that can help guide distinguish between the two:
- Allergic reactions in the eyes usually happens in both eyes at the same time.
- Allergies not only affect the eyes: expect sneezing, itching, asthmatic symptoms, hives, and a dry, scratchy throat.
- While pink eye causes the eyes to turn pink or red, allergies will cause your eyes to look bloodshot. Over the counter drops can relieve allergic redness; they cannot relieve pink eye.
- Expect dramatic discharge with pink eye, which will include green or yellow discharge; with allergies the eyes will water, but there will be no pus-like discharge.
If you believe your child has pink eye, be very mindful to keep your hands clean and not to share towels or pillowcases, as pink eye is highly contagious. Do not let your child go to school or daycare until they have been effectively treated and are infection-free.
So is it pink eye or allergies? When in doubt, it’s always best to seek expert help. If you live in or are visiting the San Antonio area, Tots N’ Teens Pediatric Urgent Care can offer convenient and comprehensive care, even after hours, and could save you time and money compared with heading to the ER. Call Tots N’ Teens Pediatric Urgent Care at 210-267-5411 for specialized urgent care services for children up to age 18. Schedule your appointment online, or walk in – the choice is yours.